The media often displays modes of representation that both perpetuate and reflect the bias and stereotyping that is pervasive through out Western culture. In the 2008 presidential election, these stereotypes were chiefly expressed through the media’s representations of Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton.
During the primaries, Clinton held the stage on equal footing with her fellow Democratic presidential candidates—all of whom were male. Already typed as a career-driven, pro-choice feminist—Clinton’s ‘brand,’ which included her ordinary appearance and cadre of power pantsuits—left no doubt as to not only her ability to ‘take care of herself’—but to her ability to challenge and dominate the Democratic primary debates; however, when Governor Sarah Palin appeared on the Republican ticket—there was an immediate, opposite reaction within the media. Palin, although a strong woman with a professional background of leadership, was portrayed as particularly vulnerable. Physically attractive, with a pro-life/family oriented conservative philosophy—Palin became the media’s ‘hothouse flower’ whose feminine presence during the vice-presidential debate offered big, tough Joe Biden a test of political propriety and etiquette unheard of in any of his previous debates—including those featuring Clinton. According to Media Matters for America:
Media continue to promote sexist notion that Biden must soften behavior during debate with Palin.
Summary: Several media figures have echoed the sexist notion that Sen. Joe Biden will have to soften his tone and manner in a debate against Gov. Sarah Palin, in contrast with the tougher tone he could take if the Republican vice-presidential nominee were male.
Following Sen. John McCain’s announcement of his selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, Media Matters for America noted that on the August 29 edition of MSNBC Live, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell and NBC News political director Chuck Todd suggested that Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden bears the burden of having to adjust his behavior in a vice-presidential debate so as not to appear to be a “bully” with Palin. Others in the media have since echoed this sexist notion that Biden will have to soften his tone and manner in a debate against Palin, in contrast with the tougher tone he could take if the Republican vice-presidential nominee were male.
* On the syndicated program The McLaughlin Group, conservative radio host and Fox News contributor Monica Crowley asserted that Palin has “got the sort of Hillary [Clinton] effect working in her favor, where Joe Biden cannot go in and bludgeon her to death because she is a woman. He’s got to be very careful in how he handles her in a debate.” Host John McLaughlin replied, “You mean his problems are greater than hers in a debate for those reasons alone — that he’s debating a woman?”
* An August 31 Chicago Sun-Times editorial asserted: “Until McCain chose Palin, Biden’s debating skills ranked high as an asset. Now, he’ll have to keep his cutting wit in check or he’ll look more like a bully when he debates this suburban hockey mom with her own sharp elbows.”
* In an August 31 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette column, columnist Jack Kelly asserted: “Mr. Obama picked Mr. Biden in part because of his reputed skill as a hatchet man. But if Mr. Biden comes on too hard in the vice presidential debate, he’ll look like a bully. And Alaska is littered with the bodies of those who tried to bully Sarah Palin and failed.”
* An August 30 editorial in The Buffalo News, asserted: “When the vice presidential candidates debate, Democrat Joe Biden will have to be careful not to come across as a bully. But he could well find a way to say to Sarah Palin, ‘Governor, you’re no Hillary Clinton.’ ”
* On the August 29 broadcast of the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, CBS News political analyst and former Bush adviser Dan Bartlett said “Joe Biden’s going to have to be very — I wouldn’t use the word delicate, but he’s going to have to have a strategy as well to deal with somebody who is new to the scene like this. He can’t be seen as a bully himself.”
From the August 31 edition of the syndicated program The McLaughlin Group:
McLAUGHLIN: What about the Palin-Biden debate? What do you think’s going to happen there?
CROWLEY: It is going to be very interesting, because here she’s got the sort of Hillary effect working in her favor, where Joe Biden cannot go in and bludgeon her to death because she is a woman. He’s got to be very careful in how he handles her in a debate.
McLAUGHLIN: You mean his problems are greater than hers in a debate for those reasons alone — that he’s debating a woman?
McLAUGHLIN: Next question: Does Sarah Palin give the Republican ticket more breadth than the Democratic ticket? [National Review editor] Rich Lowry? You wanna help on —
LOWRY: Yes —
McLAUGHLIN: — can you help on this?
LOWRY: — more life experience and some executive experience. And this is an election where McCain has to take risks if he is going to win. Every risk has its potential downsides, but this was a good one to take.
From an August 31 editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times:
Palin’s complete lack of national experience, though, could be used to draw a sharp contrast between her and [Sen. Barack] Obama’s vice presidential pick, Sen. Joe Biden, who has been in Washington for decades.
Until McCain chose Palin, Biden’s debating skills ranked high as an asset. Now, he’ll have to keep his cutting wit in check or he’ll look more like a bully when he debates this suburban hockey mom with her own sharp elbows.
Palin is a true outsider who shook up the old boy network in her scandal-plagued state and uncovered ethical misconduct.
From Kelly’s August 31 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette column, headlined “McCain’s masterstroke: If I were Joe Biden, I’d be worried about Sarah Palin”:
Whether this is a brilliant choice or a bad risk will depend on how Ms. Palin performs on the campaign trail. But if I were Joe Biden, I’d be worried. A former journalist, Sarah Palin is careful about what she says and says it well, qualities for which Mr. Biden is not renowned. Mr. Obama picked Mr. Biden in part because of his reputed skill as a hatchet man. But if Mr. Biden comes on too hard in the vice presidential debate, he’ll look like a bully. And Alaska is littered with the bodies of those who tried to bully Sarah Palin and failed.
From an August 30 editorial in The Buffalo News, headlined “McCain’s unlikely choice: Selection of Palin could alienate women but appeal to conservatives”:
Palin stands firmly on the pro-development side of the western political divide. Her husband works in the oil fields, and she is among those who most strongly favors drilling for oil in the Alaska [sic] National Wildlife Refuge and opposes listing the polar bear as an endangered species. Whether those are stands that will attract the votes of women is questionable.
When the vice presidential candidates debate, Democrat Joe Biden will have to be careful not to come across as a bully. But he could well find a way to say to Sarah Palin, “Governor, you’re no Hillary Clinton.”
From the August 29 broadcast of the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric:
KATIE COURIC (anchor): Back now from St. Paul. Dan Bartlett is a Republican strategist and a CBS News consultant. Dan, I’m curious. What are your Republican friends saying about this choice?
BARTLETT: Well, the people I’ve talked to are both excited and a bit anxious, Katie. This is a real, you know, bolt out of the blue, as Bob Schieffer [host of CBS’ Face the Nation] was saying earlier in the broadcast. This was vintage McCain. So, in some respects, we probably shouldn’t have been surprised.
They like the profile, they like the story and narrative, but you’re going up against a real pro in Joe Biden, and I think there’s some reluctance or anxiety as to whether she can step up to the plate. We’ll see very soon.
COURIC: And in fact, a McCain official I spoke to this afternoon, Dan, said that they had — they conceded they have a lot of work to do when it comes to these upcoming debates, and — especially because they’re going to be opposing two good talkers. How concerned would you be if you were on the McCain campaign and you had to prep Sarah Palin to debate Joe Biden, particularly on foreign policy?
BARTLETT: Sure. As somebody who participated in 2000 with President Bush when he first went through this debate process, it was a steep learning curve there, and he was much more exposed. So there’s no doubt about it. They’re going to have to do a lot of homework, crash course.
But at the same time, Joe Biden’s going to have to be very — I wouldn’t use the word delicate, but he’s going to have to have a strategy as well to deal with somebody who is new to the scene like this. He can’t be seen as a bully himself. So both sides will have challenges, Katie, but they’re gonna work hard at it.
Needless to say, rarely did any of these issues ever appear during the course of the several primary debates Senator Biden had with Senator Clinton. The Western media has demonstrated its inability to let go or disqualify its inflexible policy of pigeonholing or typing gender roles. In the eyes of the media, Palin’s attractiveness and conservative stance places her in a domestic/private role, while Clinton’s feminist past and professional life and goals place her within a public/political role—despite the facts that both Palin and Clinton are married with families, have highly successful careers and both are in the public eye.
The schism between the public v. the domesticate within the perception of the media has been somewhat challenged by Palin—who truly rides the ‘middle ground’ between the two roles; however, in keeping with their policies, the media primarily chooses to keep Palin in the role of domestic female. By maintaining the status quo, the media exemplifies “typing” as described by Dyer: “The establishment of normalcy through social- and stereotypes is one aspect of the habit of ruling groups…” (356). It is an aspect revealed through the prevailing practice of the Western media.
Sarah Palin, problematic as she is to the media’s policy of typing, nevertheless, fits into Klapp’s social type: “…social types refer to things with which one is familiar…” (Dyer, 355) i.e. home, family, marriage, the Judeo-Christian ethic, and Western notions of femininity. Clinton, however, fits the media/socially-designated (functional) feminist stereotype. Klapp states that stereotypes “…tend to be conceived as functionless or dysfunctional (or if functional, serving prejudice and conflict mainly), whereas social types serve the structure of society at many points” (Dyer, 355). The media has a history of invoking Clinton’s feminist roots and ideals—thereby equating her social value with that which operates at odds with what is revered or considered ‘normal’ in dominant Western society…In other words—stereotyping.
Lastly, during the campaign there has been close scrutiny on the part of the media regarding the ability of Governor Palin to fully (competently?) exercise the duties of the vice-president while raising a family. It should be noted that President-Elect Obama, like Palin, is a parent of small children—however, no questions or concerns have surfaced regarding his abilities to lead the nation or to split his time between his work and his home life—nor were there ever any concerns regarding Presidents’ Clinton, Carter or Kennedy—all of whom held the highest office on the land while parenting young children.
The gender bias this dichotomy raises once again reflects the media’s policy of sexist typing. The implications are clear: In Western society, a woman who is a parent of small children is in the fixed, yet socially accepted role of mother/wife. She carries the ‘extra-baggage,’ as it were, of her family life into the public realm—whereas a man—a male parent– is able to slip in and out of the private and public spheres unscathed, like a phantom—his extra baggage easily and conveniently deposited and forgotten back in his private sphere.
For further reading see “The Barrier that Didn’t Fall” on thedailybeast.com:
See also: http://pewresearch.org/pubs/950/mommy-wars
For an interesting comparison between the styles/agendas between Palin and Clinton see: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/2999
Boehlert, E. & Foser, J. (2008, September 1). Media Continue to Promote Sexist
Notion that Biden Must Soften Behavior During Debate With Palin. Media
Matters for America. Retrieved November 1, 2008, from
Dyer, R. (1984). Stereotyping. In M.G. Durham & D.M. Kellner (Eds.), Media and
Cultural Studies: Keyworks (pp. 353-364). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.